Anton Tantner. Ordnung der Häuser, Beschreibung der Seelen: Hausnummerierung und Seelenkonskription in der Habsburgermonarchie. Innsbruck: StudienVerlag, 2007. Wiener Schriften zur Geschichte der Neuzeit. 294 pp. ISBN 978-3-7065-4226-5.
Reviewed by Brian G.H. Ditcham (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-German (February, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Numbering the Habsburg Lands
A traveler in the Austrian or Czech lands of the Habsburg Empire during the years 1770-72 might have noticed freshly painted numbers on the front of the houses in every village though which he passed, or faint signs that such a number had been scraped off in the recent past. He might even have found himself sharing accommodation with a team of civilians and military officials, laden with bundles of papers and supplies of paint, who were busily engaged in interrogating villagers and filling in printed forms with the answers they obtained. Clearly something important was afoot.
Anton Tantner's fascinating monograph recounts the story of the Austrian census of 1770-72 and the associated process whereby every house in the empire was supposed to receive a number (not a street number in the contemporary sense of the term but rather an individual number within a defined community unit). The aim of this exercise was primarily to underpin the introduction of a new recruitment system for the Austrian army modeled on Prussian "cantonal" structures--in order to assign recruitment regions equitably it was thought necessary to have a more precise idea of the distribution of eligible males--but it also served other administrative concerns of the Enlightenment state summed up under the general term "Policey." As a result, the census had a dual aspect. Its military side went into considerable detail about the age and physical condition of adult males while also taking account of family structures to determine who might be eligible for incorporation in the army. For example, eldest sons who would succeed to a family holding were exempt from military service. Its civilian aspect also counted those who fell a priori outside the scope of military service--women and Jews. House numbering provided a basic structure to the exercise and was designed to facilitate its repetition in part by "fixing" households in a specific place. Draught animals were also included in the census, though Tantner has little to say about this aspect.
After looking at earlier Austrian efforts to count populations (frequently undertaken with discriminatory intent and targeted on the Jewish community or, to a lesser extent, non-Catholic Christian minorities), Tantner recounts the genesis of the census project in debates about the reform of the Austrian army in the aftermath of the Seven Years' War while also situating it in wider concerns on the part of the government for more and better information about the populations over which it ruled. (Here one suspects that the driving force was the co-ruler Joseph II rather than his mother, Maria Theresia.) He then provides a detailed account of the census and house numbering process as it unfolded over a massive geographical area covering much of the present day Czech Republic, Austria, and Slovenia, plus parts of Italy.
At times, it has to be said, the detail gets a little overwhelming, extending to the tenders for ink to fill in the printed forms which the teams of commissioners were expected to complete for each household and for the paint to paint the house numbers (Arabic numerals for most houses but Roman numerals for Jewish households). As an overview of the sheer scale of bureaucratic effort which the Habsburg state sought to mobilize in pursuit of the objectives of Enlightenment absolutism, it does, however, make its point--this activity represented a major exercise of state power. We follow the commissioners on their circuits, though summer heat and winter snows, filling in ill-printed forms with poor-quality ink, which blurred in the rain. Complaints about inadequate pay and expenses abounded, while scribes even went on strike (with mixed results). Inevitably, issues arose that were not adequately covered in the instructions from Vienna or where more than one interpretation of these was possible. What exactly constituted a house--for instance, was one expected to number the steadings inhabited during the summer by transhumant shepherd communities? How did floating boat mills fit into the system? What constituted a community in areas of dispersed settlement? How did one handle situations where a village was fragmented amongst two or more lordships? How were journeymen living away from their home villages to be slotted into the system so as to ensure that they were neither overlooked nor counted twice? Individuals turned out to have more than one possible surname--which one should be used? Like so many bureaucratic exercises before and since, the process ran behind time and over budget. Society proved a great deal more complex, fluid, and opaque than it seemed from a desk in the Vienna Hofburg (itself building number 1 in Vienna).
Predictably resistance arose, both at the village level (through concealment of individuals and even of whole households) and from members of the social elites (priests were uncooperative in allowing access to parish baptism records, nobles invoked privileges to claim that their servants should not be enumerated or sought to mold the structure of the census to fit their land holdings). Given that no effort was made to hide the fact that the exercise was linked to military recruitment (unlike earlier occasions, when "irrelevant" data on female household members had been sought to disguise the military ends of the operation), there appears to have been less outright resistance than one might have expected. Perhaps the assurances that the new recruitment system was going to be fairer--which priests were expected to announce from their pulpits--did actually strike a chord with the population.
Tantner underlines the unsettling, even radical, nature of the exercise. It began at the formal level. The census and house numbering process overrode all manner of pre-existing structures, ignoring lordships to create a uniform, integrated village in places where each house might have belonged to a different noble domain. The parish was preferred as the basic unit of enumeration and numbering, but the process did not simply take existing parish boundaries as a given. In some cases, particularly in regions of dispersed habitat, the 1770-72 census and numbering effectively created new administrative units that survive to this day. One needs to retain a sense of proportion here--for all its radicalism, the census worked essentially within existing provincial boundaries. There was never any intention of extending it to other Habsburg lands (such as Hungary or Milan); nor, indeed, were all the "Austrian" hereditary lands included in its scope (neither the Tyrol nor the westernmost parts of Austria were covered). Nevertheless, it posed a major challenge to traditional patterns of territorial organization.
Even more unsettling for elites was the basic lack of sympathy for their concerns programmed into the whole process. Local communities were positively encouraged to use the presence of the commissioners--surrogates for the co-rulers themselves and with privileged access to their ears--to make complaints about state administration and landowners alike. They made full use of this facility, even if Tantner is surely right in suspecting that the commissioners (especially those from the military) were not above putting their own complaints and policy preferences into the mouths of those they were surveying. The military commissioners were also encouraged to make their own comments about the condition of the people, a process that continued in the longer term as part of the new recruitment system. They proved conspicuously willing to cleave to Enlightenment principles, attacking the pernicious effects of serfdom or calling for better educational and public health provision--all at the expense of the privileged orders of nobility and clergy. No doubt these officers knew what their ultimate overlords in Vienna wanted to hear, and one suspects that advice from the recruitment district commanders became markedly less radical after the death of Emperor Leopold II. Tantner's location of the military as a vector for the transmission of concepts of enlightened absolutism up and down the social hierarchy of Habsburg Austria is nevertheless intriguing and deserves further examination.
It would be interesting to know what happened after the last bundle of returns arrived in Vienna and the last tabulation of the data therein was made. Tantner provides some information. It is clear that data from the census returns filtered into the public domain, not always accurately (precise figures were, after all, a military secret). Information from the returns also came to be used across the Habsburg bureaucracy. It is less clear how the Austrian military applied the material in the census in support of the regionalized recruitment system. Tantner suggests problems arose, not least because the information in individual returns went out of date very rapidly (indeed, some of it would have been out of date before the process was complete) and there was no entirely satisfactory way of keeping it up to date in a society that had turned out to be more mobile than its rulers perhaps imagined. He also implies that the sheer complexity and length of the 1770-72 exercise proved a discouragement from repeating it within a few years, as had originally been planned. This information should perhaps qualify some of the grander claims about the effectiveness of enlightened absolutism and how far it succeeded in realizing its dreams of making society "transparent" and manageable though the better collection of data (made, it is fair to say, less by Tantner himself than by authorities like Michel Foucault, to whom he refers). Medieval and early modern administrations had always been capable of remarkably detailed data collection exercises--the English Domesday Book of 1086 is an outstanding example--but were far less effective at creating structures to ensure that the data was kept up to date and amended when necessary. Was the Austrian census of 1770-72, impressive as it was, really so very different? Arguably, the modern era of governmental statistics is defined less by massive one-off surveys than the ability to keep data fresh through regular flows of reasonably reliable information; it is not clear from this account that the Austria of Joseph II and Leopold II really passed this test.
House numbering, however, was there to stay. It found uses outside the administration at an early date; Tantner quotes a Viennese newspaper advertisement dating from 1771 offering a reward for the return of a lost dog which makes reference to the official "conscription" number of the owner's house. Its long term survival is, however, in some ways surprising. The system was complex and apparently ill suited to dynamic situations, for example, in rapidly expanding cities like Vienna or Prague, where periodic re-numbering exercises were necessary. It was not even particularly user-friendly, since in urban settings it was not always easy to tell where numbers lay relative to each other. Nevertheless it survived, in some cases to the present (Tantner informs us that the national identity cards carried by contemporary Czech citizens still carry references to these house numbers as well as more "conventional" address data). From Tantner's account it appears that there was a genuine willingness to keep records up to date, however difficult it might prove in practice. It would be interesting to probe further just why this should have been the case.
It should be noted that illustrations of surviving house numbers and further analysis of the circumstances of their creation and survival can be found online at http://hausnummern.tantner.net, which provides a fascinating pictorial supplement to the present volume and covers examples in places which were integrated into the Habsburg lands well after the 1770-72 census (such as Venice) or indeed which were never part of that empire (like Mannheim or Basel).
Overall this book offers a fascinating picture of Habsburg bureaucracy at work. The census and house numbering exercise of 1770-72 makes an intriguing case study of the encounter between the Austrian brand of enlightened absolutism and the messy realities of the societies it sought to rule. Its intent was clearly radical even if the implementation proved less so--and the follow-up even patchier. In that, however, it was typical of many of the initiatives launched by Joseph II. Tantner's thorough engagement with this exercise provides a new angle of approach to that ruler, his ambitions, and the problems he faced in implementing his vision.
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Brian G.H. Ditcham. Review of Tantner, Anton, Ordnung der Häuser, Beschreibung der Seelen: Hausnummerierung und Seelenkonskription in der Habsburgermonarchie.
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